The Body’s Endocannabinoid System
As a teenager, Andrew Kerklaan had to see a surgeon. He’d been having numbness and back pain, so he went to the doctor’s office, waited three hours, and was told that nope, sorry, he did not have a back problem and unfortunately the surgeon was really busy and there would be no time for questions. Then he went to a chiropractor. Kerklaan in fact had a stress fracture (something he actually attributes to the paper route he had as a kid). As unpleasant a medical journey as it was, it also brought a pretty big silver lining: Kerklaan became a chiropractor in London and later in his hometown of Montreal, and for the past twenty years he’s been helping people in pain.
“Like many people who decide to be in the healthcare field, I wanted to help people who had the same experience I had,” he says.
But it wasn’t until a few years ago that he started studying the body’s endocannabinoid system, which he talked about at In goop Health Vancouver. The complex system, Kerklaan says, is in our gut, nervous system, and throughout our body. And he wanted to know why. And what role might the endocannabinoid system play in our overall well-being? What he found out intrigued us.
(Before we get into it, as always, you should check with your doctor on what’s best for you.)
A Q&A with Andrew Kerklaan, DC
Your endocannabinoid system is part of your body’s nervous system. The complex part is that you can’t picture it as a physical thing, like our circulation system. The endocannabinoid system is more of a communication network with receptors—like CB1 and CB2 receptors—and molecules that our bodies naturally generate to bind to those receptors. You create these molecules, called endocannabinoids, they bind to receptors, and they influence what the receptors are doing. They can help regulate important functions in your body and have wide-ranging health potential. Your body naturally produces endocannabinoids, which, as science has discovered, are near-identical molecules to what are found in the cannabis or hemp plant.
Before becoming a chiropractor, I had studied engineering, which is very mechanical. When you look at the body, we’re really mechanical as well. It’s about how we move muscles, joints, and bones. That mechanical approach to health is also very important. If you look at a list of our most common complaints, you’ll see a lot of it is related to lifestyle, posture, and stress.
At the beginning of my career, I had a very narrow view of what my patients’ issues were and what they were complaining about. As I accumulated more experience—I’ve treated around 5,000 people over the years—I started seeing the bigger, broader picture. It became clear in the last five years that a majority of people I was seeing had their root issue in a stress response.
At the same time, many of my patients were coming in and asking questions about medical cannabis. Like most health professionals, I didn’t feel equipped to answer those questions, so I attended conferences and started studying it. In doing that, I had my eyes opened to the significance of the endocannabinoid system.
Our bodies are programmed to respond to things really quickly but for short periods of time. It’s our fight-or-flight response. Today, we are doing things really slowly for longer periods of time. Our muscles have to act slowly, move less, and do so for a long period. When we’re doing something we’re not designed to do, we can run into trouble.
When I looked at it from that perspective, I understood that a patient’s physical symptom might not just be the result of them bending over to pick something up. There might be other things going on in their life. If I can help address those other factors, it becomes more of a holistic approach. You have to exercise, you have to eat well, and you have to sleep. You also have to find ways to de-stress, have fun, and create good stress in your life to balance out the bad stress.
It’s more like a trigger, and we end up with these automatic bodily responses. The trigger can become smaller and smaller, but the response becomes bigger and bigger. In other words, our stress response keeps going up and up and up to smaller and smaller things. That’s an adaptation in the body that’s going in the wrong direction—it’s not helpful.
A lot of stress responses are not helpful if you think about it. What does stress do? It increases your heart rate and your blood pressure, which is ultimately bad for you. So your body’s creating this automatic response that is not good for you if continuously triggered.
This means we need to find ways to turn off these preprogrammed responses to those reactions and find ways to release things. We all have muscles that respond in a preprogrammed way to certain things. We might sit a certain way. That can trigger a recurring stress response and could contribute to a physical complaint.
After having a massage or being adjusted by a chiropractor, a lot of people report a sense of well-being. Post-manipulation, like a chiropractic adjustment, there may be a spike in anandamide, which is a naturally occurring endocannabinoid molecule in your body. It binds to the same brain receptors as cannabinoids from the cannabis plant, like THC, which gives that psychoactive effect of feeling high. So your body may produce a similar molecule to THC as a result of physical manipulation. This struck me.
I’ve spent twenty years working as a chiropractor and have seen people report feeling great after an adjustment. The prevailing theory was that this was created by an endorphin release, similar to the high that runners report after exercise. It turns out it could be related to your endocannabinoid system.
I thought that understanding our endocannabinoid system was crucial to being able to provide better care for my patients. I wanted to explore this possibility and help people understand this system, as there’s still a lack of understanding, a lack of information, and probably a lack of trust when it comes to conversations around endocannabinoids as a result of the historical stigma of cannabis.
Original Blog was first published on goop.com